Industry links aren't working

14th November 1997 at 00:00
Old hands will recall the late Frank McElhone, Labour's education minister in the 1970s. He developed a passionate attachment to the need for educationists and industrialists to be brought closer together. Famously, he urged Scottish Ballet to take its repertoire on to the shopfloor. The Education for the Industrial Society project was the result.

Events have moved on, although it is testimony to the back seat on which education-industry links (EIL) have been deposited in the intervening years that last week's conference at South Queensferry (page one) is the first on the subject to have been addressed by an education minister since Mr McElhone's day. Significantly Brian Wilson, like his Labour predecessor, is minister for industry as well as education.

The new drive to move EIL from the back seat to centre stage represents a coming together of a number of preoccupations at the one time, as these initiatives often do. There is a senior chief inspector who is prepared to give it clout, a minister who is prepared to endorse it, and a Government which believes the world of business has something central to contribute.

The usual reservations will no doubt continue to be expressed about the intentions behind these moves - the vandals at the gates, takeover by the utilitarians, the mechanistic inculcation of skills. The way to counter them is to make clear, as undoubtedly the Scottish Office intends, that this is an educational agenda driven by the needs of schools not the requirements of employers.

What Douglas Osler, the senior chief inspector,has been attempting to do for more than a year now is to move the debate forwards by developing a rationale in which there is in fact no dichotomy between the needs of schools, employers and society at large. The Education Minister has no apparent trouble with that policy and neither should anybody else. It is, after all, what early intervention is chiefly about - equipping young people so they can access not only the curriculum but the market place as well. That way lies progress and satisfaction for both schools and their customers.

The pressure should now be to ensure that employers get on board to solve the genuine challenges of education such as underachievement.

Schools are being asked to look on EIL as more than just a curricular afterthought. And businesses, as John Mulgrew, East Ayrshire's director, suggests, should confine their excitement to "the big picture" not just the usual diet of mini-projects.

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